Unsettling The Science of Reading: Who is Being Sold A Story?

Nick Covington
November 30, 2023
Literacy doesn’t come in a box, we’ll never find our kids at the bottom of a curriculum package, and there can be no broad support for systemic change that excludes input from and support for teachers implementing these programs in classrooms with students. 
(Two hands pull apart a book)

Exactly one year after the final episode of the podcast series that launched a thousand hot takes and opened the latest front of the post-pandemic Reading Wars, I finally dug into Emily Hanford’s Sold A Story from American Public Media. Six episodes later, I’m left with the ironic feeling that the podcast, and the narrative it tells, missed the point. My goal with this piece is to capture the questions and criticisms that I have not just about the narrative of Sold A Story but of the broader movement toward “The Science of Reading,” and bring in other evidence and perspectives that inform my own. I hope to make the case that “The Science of Reading” is not a useful label to describe the multiple goals of literacy; that investment in teacher professionalization is inoculation against being Sold A Story; and that the unproductive and divisive Reading Wars actually make it more difficult for us to think about how to cultivate literate kids. The podcast, and the Reading Wars it launched, disseminate an incomplete and oversimplified picture of a complex process that plasters over the gaps with feverish insistence.

Sold a Story is a podcast that investigates the ongoing Reading Wars between phonics, whole language, balanced literacy, and “The Science of Reading." Throughout the series, listeners hear from teachers who felt betrayed by what school leaders, education celebrities, and publishers told them was the right way to teach, only to later learn they had been teaching in ways deemed ineffective. The story, as I heard it, was that teachers did their jobs to the best of their personal ability in exactly the ways incentivized by the system itself.  In a disempowered profession, the approaches criticized in the series offered teachers a sense of aspirational community, opportunities for training and professional development, and the prestige of working with Ivy League researchers. Further, they came with material assets - massive classroom libraries and flexible seating options for students, for example - that did transform classroom spaces. 

Without the critical toolkit and systemic support to evaluate claims of effectiveness, and lacking collective power to challenge the dictates of million dollar curriculum packages, teachers taught how they were instructed to teach using the resources they were required to use. And given the scarcity of educational resources at the disposal of most individual teachers, it’s easy to see why they embraced such a visible investment in reading instruction. Instead of seeing teachers in their relation to systemic forces - in their diminished roles as curriculum custodians - Hanford instead frames teachers who participated in these methods as having willingly bought into a cult of personality, singing songs and marching under the banners of Calkins and Clay; however, Hanford also comes up short in offering ways this story could have gone differently or will go differently in the future.

A key objective of Sold A Story is to communicate to listeners that “The Science of Reading” is the only valid, evidence-based way to teach kids to read and borders on calling other approaches a form of educational malpractice, inducing a unique pedagogical injury. In the wake of Sold A Story, “The Science of Reading” itself has been co-opted as a marketing and branding label. States and cities have passed laws requiring “The Science of Reading,” sending school leaders scrambling to purchase new programs and train teachers to comply with the new prescription. 

In May 2023, the mayor of New York City announced “a tectonic shift” in reading instruction for NYC schools. The change required school leaders to choose from one of three pre-approved curriculum packages provided by three different publishing companies. First-year training for the new curriculum was estimated to cost $35 million, but “city officials declined to provide an estimate of the effort’s overall price tag, including the cost of purchasing materials.” NYC Schools also disbanded their in-house literacy coaching program over the summer to contract instead with outside companies to provide coaching. It’s hard not to conclude that the same publishing ecosystem that sold school leaders and policy-makers on the previous evidence-based reading curriculum – and that Hanford condemns in the podcast – is happy to meet their current needs in the marketplace. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

Now, months into the new school year and just weeks before Winter Break, how is the hurried rollout of the new reading curriculum going for NYC schools and teachers? One Brooklyn teacher told Chalkbeat they still hadn’t received the necessary training to use the new materials, “The general sentiment at my school is we’re being asked to start something without really knowing what it should look like, I feel like I’m improvising — and not based on the science of reading.” A third-grade teacher said phonics had not been the norm for her class, and that she hasn’t “received much training on how to deliver the highly regimented lessons.”  Other teachers echo the sentiment of feeling rushed, hurried, and unprepared. One 30+ year veteran classroom teacher mentioned that she has “turned to Facebook groups when she has questions.” The chaotic back-and-forth was also recognized by many veteran teachers responding to the Chalkbeat piece on social media. One education and literacy coach commented, “I sometimes wonder how many curriculum variations I've seen in the last 3 decades - ’Here teachers [drops off boxed curriculum],  now teach this way’ -  hasn't changed student outcomes across systems.” 

Cognitive scientist and psycholinguist Mark Seidenberg, someone who would probably disagree mightily with me pedagogically, but from whom I have learned a lot, apparently feels a similar slipperiness with the “science of reading” label and what it represents:

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here: The treatment of PA [phonemic awareness] in the “science of reading”–the idea that a certain level of PA is prerequisite for reading, and that PA training should continue until the student becomes highly proficient at PA tasks regardless of how well they are reading–is emblematic of problems that have arisen within the SoR approach. It is an overprescription that reflects a shallow understanding of reading development, yet has become a major tenet of the “science of reading”. The PA situation and other developments suggest to me that the SoR is at risk of turning into a new pedagogical dogma, consisting of a small set of tenets loosely tied to some classic but dated research, supplemented by additional assumptions that are ad hoc and ill-advised…
Finally, about the expression “the science of reading”:  The term isn’t in wide use among researchers. There isn’t a field called “the science of reading” and people rarely identify as “reading scientists,” in my experience. In reading education, the term has been taken up by a movement (often abbreviated SoR) to reform instruction, teacher education and curricula. This movement/approach is not the same as the body of research about reading. For one thing, the former has as yet incorporated very little of the latter.  (emphasis added)

Researcher and literacy expert, Timothy Shanahan (citing Seidenberg), demonstrates that the “science of reading” moniker has emerged in four distinct cycles since the late 18th century, each time to describe an adjacent phenomenon. He argues that the term “science of reading” as it is used today is a “misnomer” in that it “seems to be less about a science of reading than a science of reading instruction.” Adding that while “efforts to apply research to reading instruction” have increased since the 1950s, “these efforts rarely employed the term science of reading.”

Because it is so dependent on neurodevelopment – the growth of the brain and the formation of neural pathways within it – reading itself is not a distinctly defined process. From a 2014 study: “Reading is a learned skill that is likely influenced by both brain maturation and experience. Functional imaging studies have identified brain regions important for skilled reading, but the structural brain changes that co-occur with reading acquisition remain largely unknown.”  After all the “settled science”, what we are really dealing with is a mystery, not something that can be universally pre-empted with the “right” curriculum or methodology.

This is something Shanahan acknowledges as well:

It seems clear from the neurosciences that in terms of brain function, we all read in the same way, no matter how we were taught. It is not clear, however, what readers learn that enables this universal process. We know about the coordination of phonological processing and visual processing, and we know that teaching a broad array of sound–symbol relations and spelling patterns enhances reading achievement, but we do not know what is coded into memory.

On the relation between Reading Recovery – an intervention method heavily criticized in Hanford’s Sold A Story – the brain, and the “Science of Reading,” Shanahan writes:

Somehow, students who are being taught in this way are still ending up reading much as the kids who receive explicit decoding instruction. The same could be said of approaches to reading that only teach words. As already noted, such approaches [like Reading Recovery] do not do as well as explicit decoding instruction in improving reading, yet how do students learn from them at all? According to basic research studies, they should not work; that they do should be a matter of more than intellectual curiosity.

In addition to the disorganization and confusion caused by shifting reading programs and the inherent slipperiness of “The Science of Reading” label agreed upon by critics and proponents alike, what do we know about how previous efforts to shift reading toward phonics instruction have worked at scale? A massive study of the $6 billion NCLB-era Reading First program found that while improvements in decoding followed from an increase in explicit phonics instruction, these improvements and investments showed “On average, across the study sites, estimated impacts on student reading test scores were not statistically significant.” Worse yet, another study of Reading First found that reading scores declined “as much as 50%” where culturally responsive practices and bilingual whole language models were replaced by mandated English-only phonics instruction for a Navajo Nation school.

Another study looked at the impact of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training on teacher practice and student achievement across 90 schools and 24,000 students. One teacher group received 48 hours of professional development in LETRS, another teacher group received an additional 60 hours of on-site coaching. The study found that teacher knowledge and implementation of scientifically-based reading instruction again showed no improvement on student reading achievement:

Although there were positive impacts on teacher’s knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction and on one of the three instructional practices promoted by the study PD, neither PD intervention resulted in significantly higher student test scores at the end of the one-year treatment…The improvement in teacher knowledge and the increased explicitness of teachers’ instruction caused by the PD intervention did not translate into improvements in student reading achievement as measured by standardized tests given by each district.

Still another study examined the effectiveness of McGraw-Hill’s phonics-based K-6 Open Court Reading program – the program that mainstreamed the phonics movement in the United States – which claims on its website to be “Underpinned by findings from learning theory and cognitive science—also known as the Science of Reading—and proven to achieve reading gains in a diverse range of readers from beginning to fluent, Open Court Reading is research-validated as well as research-based.”

(Screenshot of Open Court Reading website from McGraw-Hill)

 In Findings From a Multiyear Scale-Up Effectiveness Trial of Open Court Reading, which involved 9,000 students and 2,000 teachers from 49 elementary schools, researchers found “no statistically significant main effects on students’ reading performance in Year 1 and a small negative effect in Year 2.” Concluding, “relative to the ‘business-as-usual’ reading curricula, no positive overall impacts of OCR and mixed impacts for student subgroups were found.”

One remarkable meta-analysis out of the UK looked at England’s own tectonic shift in educational policy toward synthetic phonics and found that perhaps policy-makers, in their eagerness, overcorrected and threw the baby out with the bathwater. In the zero-sum timeline of the school day, an overemphasis on expanding synthetic phonics, both in terms of curricular time and the age of students receiving phonics instruction, squeezed out other vital practices and co-requisites, like building content knowledge, that help create fully literate students. Their meta-analysis examined PISA scores and found that “The whole language orientation is correlated with…the highest ranked regions.” The authors propose that the overemphasis on synthetic phonics is less likely to be as effective as the “contextualized teaching of reading,” adding, “Our findings…do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading” suggesting instead that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful. Citing England’s curriculum as an outlier in its emphasis on synthetic phonics, they write:

Our analyses of the PISA data suggest that teaching reading in England has been less successful since the introduction of more emphasis on synthetic phonics, although the correlations reported here require further research. In relation to the national curricula of the regions that we reviewed there is little evidence to suggest that a synthetic phonics first-and-foremost orientation to national curricula is likely to be the most effective orientation.

The authors make three recommendations for how educators can determine how and what to teach in the absence of scripted programs:

On the Reading Wars, they call for detente, and a broadening of perspectives about how to best achieve the shared goal of literacy. The “dismissive attitudes to whole language” are not supported by research, they write, acknowledging that while phonics remains “one important component” in teaching reading, “the research certainly does not suggest the complete exclusion of whole language teaching.” The authors end with a plea for a “reading reconciliation,” a draw-down of the Reading Wars that requires the collaboration of policymakers, teachers, and researchers, over long periods of time, to “evolve national curriculum and associated pedagogy.”

(Edit: Faith Borkowsky of The Literacy View mentioned that the most recent PIRLS data from 2021 (released in May2023) was celebrated for showing England's improvement from 8th to 4th place in 10th grade reading. Even more recent PISA data released on Dec 5, 2023 shows test score declines in the UK for all three tested subjects - reading, math, and science - though still above the overall OECD average.)

Literacy doesn’t come in a box, we’ll never find our kids at the bottom of a curriculum package, and there can be no broad support for systemic change that excludes input from and support for teachers implementing these programs in classrooms with students. 

While literacy is nested within a complex of historic, linguistic, semiotic, and sociocultural contexts – each with different objectives, languages, and semiotics of their own – in its emphasis on testable, controllable outcomes and their relationship to cognition and the brain, these just aren't questions any "Science of Reading" is capable of answering for us. Sold A Story and the other forces shaping the Reading Wars entirely miss the point: Literacy is not about picking between prescriptive programs and approaches – "The Science of Reading" vs Whole Language vs Balanced Literacy, or McGraw-Hill vs Calkins vs Fountas and Pinnell - it's about creating environments and cultivating practices that contribute to literacy. And there are any number of evidence-based practices that support the multiple goals of literacy without buying a million-dollar curriculum package or buying into a cult of personality.

Reading is part of literacy, but it is not literacy – just as phonics is part of reading but is not reading. These are necessary but not sufficient components of the bigger project of literacy: What is literacy? What’s the purpose of literacy? What does it mean to be literate? 

None of this is an argument against reading, it’s a call for systemic support for more literacy.

In The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky  – all researchers in the area of literacy – write that “The Science of Reading” movement leads to an oversimplification of reading, reducing it to a “technical exercise.” They argue this oversimplification ignores other important and complicated factors that “contribute to how people read, why they read, and how they experience reading instruction,” including systemic factors. Class sizes, safe and healthy buildings, quality and accessible materials, and well-equipped learning environments, they write, “would greatly enhance their ability to care for the whole student and the experiences those students bring individually, culturally, and collectively to schools.”

José Luis Vilson, a veteran NYC schools educator, also situates curriculum change inside a broader economic and political movement to deprive students and schools in poor communities the opportunities to build literacy:

…for decades, schools that work with children, particularly children in poverty, have been forced to do more with less. In New York City, this means the mayor has proposed another devastating round of budget cuts to places where students would have more opportunities to develop their reading skills, like schools and libraries. In fact, our libraries, already struggling from consistent cuts over the years, are now closed on Sundays across the city. In addition, the infamous Moms for Liberty has sought to elevate its profile here as well, a boon that’s already disrupted schools across the city from teaching children to learn from one another.

And it’s not just political neglect and economic deprivation, Vilson also feels that the compulsory emphasis on synthetic phonics and decoding defined as “The Science of Reading” is a distraction from the multiple ways teachers and schools cultivate literate kids:

What we mean by literacy might be the most glaring hole in how we discuss reading. We have different definitions of reading, but generally, reading is the ability to decode text and make meaning of the text. Reading, however, is not the same as literacy. Literacy, by comparison, is a more expansive set of acts related to how one decodes, interprets, and communicates through a medium. Literacy includes writing, listening, speaking, and making meaning of a whole communicative experience.

But these are more difficult considerations to address, aren’t they? It's harder to have a shouting match at a school board meeting over the question, "What does it mean to be literate?"

Investment in teacher professionalization breaks the back-and-forth between prescriptive one-size-fits-all programs, and allows educators to engage with students and families using a number of evidence-based culturally responsive methods. Educators with deep pedagogical understanding can draw from richly resourced and supported school contexts to make decisions based on an understanding of research, practice, and community values, without having to rely on the dictates of the newest million dollar commodified curriculum package to determine – cyclically and in often contradictory ways – "what the research says." Moreover, professionals with a robust knowledge of neurodevelopment, neuropsychology, perception, and other research fields – who are often used to assess reading difficulty but not to inform teaching it – would have a critical context to weigh and evaluate the “Science of X'' against other evidence-based practices. These may also be teachers who don’t have to turn to Facebook groups to make sense of how the newest “Science of Reading'' curriculum can work for their kids. Ultimately, as we see in the implementation of new curriculum in NYC schools, the ideological attachment to “evidence-based” methods cannot patch or fix the deeper systemic issues which lead to scattershot implementation, training, operations. 

Expanding and enhancing social studies also seems to be a powerful antidote. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) documents reduced time for elementary social studies since No Child Left Behind. 2022 NAEP scores also showed a decreased focus on 8th grade US History correlated with declining scores, where scores fell the most for kids who reported not taking a US history course. In a direct attack on literacy and the social studies, states across the country have passed laws limiting the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” – limiting teaching and access to materials on topics related to race, gender, and LGTBQ identity – at the same time they’ve required the adoption of “The Science of Reading.” And while NCSS recommends a “powerful and purposeful” social studies curriculum that is meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active, The74 reported that Texas lawmakers “gutted civics'' education by banning “all assignments involving ‘direct communication’ between students and elected officials.”

Teachers have used their collective power to organize on behalf of students and schools for resources and better learning conditions that cultivate students as active and literate agents. So it’s doubly interesting to see some (not all) groups that embrace "The Science of Reading'' stand steadfast against not only this model of teacher-as-professional but of the project of public education itself. It would be wrong to dismiss concerns over the parallel emergence of “The Science of Reading” and post-pandemic education culture wars. Groups like Moms For Liberty publicly endorse the “Science of Reading” and demand rushed curriculum mandates, while disinvesting in public schools and community libraries, removing books, and sowing fear and distrust about teachers themselves. The Thomas B Fordham Institute easily fits the “Science of Reading” into their broader mission to provide state funding for private education under the alias of “school choice.” And Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s reactionary State Superintendent, has embraced state investments in the “Science of Reading” while at the same time calling the teacher’s union a “terrorist organization” and vowing to “bring God and prayer back in schools in Oklahoma, and fight back against the radical myth of separation of church and state." Walters has also pledged a revision of Oklahoma’s American history and civics curriculum that includes PragerU and Hillsdale College as possible vendors.

Houston ISD parents are right to be concerned about Supt. Mike Miles’ mandate that their overhauled “Science of Reading” curriculum be taught in English-only, when he says, “You cannot read well if you can’t decode, and you cannot decode if you don’t do it in English. So we’re gonna do the science of reading, decoding and language comprehension in English and then we will supplement the language, Spanish.” Neither Texas nor the United States have an official language, and according to district figures, 62% of HISD students are Hispanic/Latino and 42% are Spanish-speaking. Carol Schmid, Professor of Sociology and Law, opens her essay “The Politics of English Only in the United States” with Noam Chomsky saying, “Questions of language are basically questions of power.” If “The Science of Reading'' is to be understood as rooted in the universal structures of the brain in relation to cognition, separate from questions of power, the decision to teach a reading curriculum in English-only, as in Houston ISD or the Reading First program in Navajo schools, cannot be understood as rooted in science; particularly given the prejudiced history of English-only in the United States. Schmid concludes that English-only laws which limit bilingual education and services have no positive impact on English proficiency while increasing antiforeign attitudes and prejudice against language-minorities. Examining the legal and social history of English-only in the United States, she writes, “Unless there are proper safeguards for language minorities, nativist groups will be able to promote a hidden agenda that has little to do with language.”

What we are compelled to read, write, think, and communicate about in schools matters a great deal. So what does it mean to be literate – to read, write, think, and communicate – only about a narrow list of pre-approved strategies, activities, and topics? Approved by whom, and toward what ends? This is a shallow vision of education as achievement without agency that we should question vigorously. Is achievement without agency truly the goal of a literate society? How can we harmonize this with education as a democratic practice? 

In another blow to professionalization, teacher vacancies around the country have also led states and districts to dramatically loosen the requirements for teacher certification. A local investigation into Houston ISD this year found that the district employs nearly 800 uncertified teachers. Arizona, which has the lowest teacher salaries in the nation, no longer requires a completed college degree program to begin teaching students. Schools in Florida have looked to military service, alternate certification, and requiring only high school diplomas for substitutes to help fill nearly 5,230 vacancies. Deprofessionalization and enormous teacher turnover are not good for students or schools. As the president of the National Council on Teaching Quality told Axios, "If we don't disrupt this pattern of sending unprepared and unqualified teachers to our students, then we will continue to see lagging or declining student outcomes, and we simply have to disrupt that pattern." What pedagogical understanding or institutional power do these teachers have to evaluate, let alone challenge, the soundness of programs and practices they are being told to teach? And in what ways are “Science of Reading” programs capitalizing on this new, mostly inexperienced, deprofessionalized workforce?

(A book being torn apart)

Just as we wouldn't confuse the paintbrush for the painting or the vehicle for the destination, "Doing The Science of Reading" for the sake of it doesn't seem like a very worthy goal. A microscope is an incredibly valuable tool, but it’s one only way of seeing one part of the greater whole. It seems obvious to say that there are important questions about cultivating literate kids that a science of reading can help us answer and many, many more that it cannot. As Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida write in Making sense of reading’s forever wars, “Genuine, lasting improvement in reading instruction in the U.S. requires more than pedagogical changes; it necessitates structural ones. Fixing reading education is not solely a matter of research or implementation at the classroom level; it is also a matter of political will.”

When we preclude other ways of thinking about literacy we leave ourselves collectively vulnerable; unable to answer questions outside the scope of "The Science of Reading.” In the absence of a sound policy answer to the other stuff, powerful and connected political movements fill the void, and what are they dictating about how “The Science of Reading” shapes literacy in schools and society? If we admit these groups have appropriated a sound science for undesirable purposes, on what grounds other than those of value-driven democracy, politics, policy, and power are we to refute them? I say let’s start on those grounds and find the best available means of achieving those ends. 

The complex value-driven question of what matters most in a robust and socially just science of reading is exactly the question researchers Maren Aukerman and Lorien Chambers Schuldt answer in their 2021 article. I’ll quote at length from their conclusion as it captures the enormous and complex challenge we face and what we must resist reducing to “The Science of Reading”:

To align with a robust and socially just science of reading, teachers must have access to literacy curricula that meaningfully support varied aspects of textual dexterity, attend to fostering students’ literate dispositions, and cultivate students’ development as literate individuals more broadly, honoring differences and considering lived experiences.
Thus, in addition to understanding content and pedagogy for teaching decoding, teachers need to know classroom practices…that support comprehension, various kinds of text use, and critical thinking about text; teach toward and monitor student engagement, motivation, and self-efficacy during reading instruction; and build vibrant literacy communities, relationships, and identities that honor differences among students. To do so well, teachers must also be equipped to examine their beliefs and develop asset-based stances that integrate an understanding of language development, language variation, and culturally responsive teaching into reading instruction.
Finally, we propose that reading education should attend closely to linguistic, cultural, and individual variation, honoring and leveraging different strengths and perspectives that students bring to and take away from their learning. Reimagining a science of reading based on these principles has the potential to make it both more robust and more socially just, particularly for students from nondominant cultures.

The real story is that there are no magic bullets in education, but there has been a real cost to the Reading Wars. We see this in the deprofessionalization of teacher training and practice, the replacement of responsive pedagogies with standardized curricula that come with guaranteed payouts to publishing giants, and the opportunity cost of giving a disproportionate amount of curricular time to resources aligned exclusively toward variously flawed and reductive notions of literacy. It's harder to blame teachers or believe we’ve solved systemic problems with a reading curriculum when we recognize the complex value-driven paths to human literacy are ones that we must shape and walk together.

(I am very grateful to all who reviewed and gave feedback on this piece. Special shout-out to Michael Weingarth for reviewing my early draft and contributing his knowledge of neuroscience/psych/biology that helped bring many pieces together for me.)

Editor's Note: The piece was edited on December 5, 2023 to reflect the most recent PIRLS and PISA data available.

Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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